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Masked Joel Embiid scores 23 in NBA Playoffs debut, vows to be ‘nightmare’ for Miami

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid (21) drives to the basket as Miami Heat's Hassan Whiteside, left, and Kelly Olynyk (9) defend during the first half of Game 3 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Thursday, April 19, 2018, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid (21) drives to the basket as Miami Heat's Hassan Whiteside, left, and Kelly Olynyk (9) defend during the first half of Game 3 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Thursday, April 19, 2018, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

It wouldn’t really feel like a true Joel Embiid milestone without some maddening injury putting it behind schedule. So, appropriately enough, the often-wounded, rarely-dispirited Philadelphia center made his NBA Playoffs debut three games into his team’s opening-round series Thursday night in Miami.

Although the former Kansas star, who never played in an NCAA Tournament game back in 2014 due to a back injury, missed the last three weeks and the 76ers’ previous 10 games due to an orbital bone fracture near his left eye, a masked Embiid returned to the lineup to lead his team to a road victory in his postseason launch.

Sure, the Sixers’ star appeared both obstructed and frustrated at times by the protective shield strapped to his face. Even so, Embiid, while showing some rust, managed to pour in 23 points on 5-for-11 shooting, nail 3 of 4 from 3-point range and provide 7 boards, 4 assists and 3 blocks in 30 minutes of a 128-108 win.

The first five field-goal attempts from the recovering big man misfired before he got on track just before halftime, first by knocking down a 3-pointer, then converting through contact on a smooth up-and-under.

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“I am just so proud of what he did on the court,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said after Embiid helped the team take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. “Take the real situation of not only was he injured, and not playing basketball, but now you’ve gotta come back in on the road and play a playoff game with a mask. And it’s not like there’s a clear vision line out of the mask. It has a protective lens in there, as well. And for him to come back under those terms and in that situation and produce the numbers he produced, and help lead us to a road playoff win, I’m very, very proud of him.”

As indestructible as the mask’s components proved to be — Miami’s Justise Winslow purposefully stepped on the goggles portion when it popped off to no avail — The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey reported Embiid had to use three different masks during the course of the game as the protective gear suffered damages significant enough to warrant replacements.

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“It was annoying,” Embiid said, “but that was the only way I could play in this game, was if I was going to wear the mask and protect my face with the goggles. So I had to work through it, and I did, and we got a pretty good win.”

As for Winslow’s ploy to potentially destroy the mask and perhaps sideline Embiid as a result? Well, the Philly center got a kick out of that.

“Little do they know that I have about 50 of them,” Embiid said. “So it’s gonna take much more than that to get me out of the series. And I’m gonna be a nightmare for them, too.”

The Sixers took a 2-point lead into the fourth quarter before putting Miami away on its home floor down the stretch. In the final five-plus minutes, Embiid drilled a fade-away jumper off the glass, knocked down a 3-pointer, blocked a shot and sent in a pair of free throws, before checking out with his team up 16 points.

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“It meant a lot,” Embiid said of finally appearing in his first playoff game, close to four years after the 76ers took him No 3 overall in the 2014 draft. “I feel like I’ve been here, went through everything. The year we only won 10 games (2015-16) it was really disappointing. So we went through a lot, and to be able to be in this position, I’m really happy about it. I’m really happy for coach, finally has a team and is coaching us well. He deserves a lot of credit and I feel like he should be Coach of the Year, too. But I was excited. Worked really hard for it and promised the city that. Made it happen. And I was kind of sad that I couldn’t play in the first game or at home, because we have a special connection. But I’m glad I came back today and we got a win.”

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Reply 5 comments from Dirk Medema Gerry Butler Steve Corder Phil Leister Marius7782

Marcus Morris: Confrontation with Khris Middleton dates back to their college matchups

Boston Celtics forward Marcus Morris, center, drives to the basket between Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) and guard Sterling Brown, right, during the fourth of Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series in Boston, Tuesday, April 17, 2018. The Celtics defeated the Bucks 120-106. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Boston Celtics forward Marcus Morris, center, drives to the basket between Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) and guard Sterling Brown, right, during the fourth of Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series in Boston, Tuesday, April 17, 2018. The Celtics defeated the Bucks 120-106. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

When Boston’s Marcus Morris and Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton started leaning into each other with a little more oomph while jockeying for position and barking back and forth even louder than normal during a playoff matchup Tuesday night it wasn’t because the two had grown sick of each other less than two games into a best-of-seven series.

According to Morris, the chippy nature of their encounter, which culminated with Morris fouling Middleton hard on a drive to the paint in the second half, dates back to their days in the Big 12.

"I've been competing with Khris since college, when we used to kick they ass in Kansas," Morris told The Republican after the Celtics’ victory, referring to Midleton’s days at Texas A&M. "He's a good player. No hard feelings, but I'm coming to play. I know he is. We're gonna go back and forth."

Apparently it didn’t take much for Middleton, now the Bucks’ second-best scorer, behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, to rub Morris the wrong way. Their paths only crossed three times during their college careers. KU and Morris went 2-0 versus A&M in 2010, when Morris was a sophomore and Middleton was a freshman. They met up just once the following year, and KU defeated the Aggies, 64-61, at Allen Fieldhouse, in 2011. As a junior, Morris scored 13 points in his home finale. Middleton, then a sophomore, scored 9 in defeat.

The two actually have squared off far more often as pros. While Middleton (15.1 points per game, 39.1% 3-point shooting through six seasons) has enjoyed a more successful career, Morris (11.2 career scoring average, 35.7% 3-point shooter) continues to get the best of his old college adversary in the NBA.

Per basketball-reference.com, Morris’ teams have gone 8-5 versus Middleton’s in the regular season since the two began squaring off in 2012-13, Middleton’s rookie year. Middleton has out-scored Morris 16.9 points per game to 13.0 in those meetings, though, and shot 54.5% from the floor, compared to 46% for Morris.

More importantly for the former Kansas standout, he now possesses a 2-0 record against the former Aggie in the playoffs. Middleton is averaging 28.0 points per game and hitting 4.5 3-pointers a game against Boston, but Morris (19.5 points per game, 50% 3-point shooting) plays for a more balanced team and heads to Milwaukee with Boston up 2-0 in the series.

“I expect it to be a hostile environment,” Morris predicted of Game 3, at Milwaukee, “especially with me. I'm ready for it. Going in same attitude, like I'm in Boston.”

The Celtics’ current sixth man, Morris played 30 minutes off the bench on Tuesday, scoring 18 points on 5-for-11 shooting, while providing 5 boards and an assist.

His fiery, sometimes physical, play provides even more, though. Just after Morris fouled Middleton late in the game and members of both teams kept that duo separated as they yelled unpleasantries at each other, Morris turned to the Boston crowd and waved his hands upwards, imploring them to get even louder. They predictably obliged.

“I’m trying to make tough plays,” Morris said, “and be that spark.”


Regular Season Table
Player G W L GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
Marcus Morris1385629.84.810.5.4601.54.1.3581.82.5.7274.72.20.60.11.81.813.0
Khris Middleton1358930.16.111.2.5451.53.2.4883.23.5.9134.42.91.10.21.72.816.9
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/18/2018.
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Celtics need a productive Marcus Morris to make a lengthy playoff run

Fans react after Boston Celtics' Marcus Morris (13) was fouled while shooting during the first quarter of Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, in Boston, Sunday, April 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Fans react after Boston Celtics' Marcus Morris (13) was fouled while shooting during the first quarter of Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, in Boston, Sunday, April 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Under other circumstances Boston would not need much production out of Marcus Morris in order to advance in the NBA Playoffs.

But injuries to the two best players on the roster, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, mean it’s all hands on the parquet floor for the Celtics, and Morris, the group’s current sixth man, is as crucial to the team’s longevity this spring as anyone.

Although the former Kansas standout has been in the league since 2011, Boston’s Sunday meeting with Milwaukee marked just the fifth playoff game of Morris’ career. Even so, the 6-foot-9 forward’s savvy play and late-game baskets proved vital to a 113-107 overtime victory.

Game 1 of the opener might not have got to OT without Morris’ crunch-time play. In the final five minutes of regulation, Morris drove for a successful reverse layup, later tipped in his own miss, fed Terry Rozier for a 3-pointer, hit a contested step-back jumper and drew a charge on Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.

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A sub in name only, Morris played 35 minutes as a reserve, essentially serving as the fifth starter, instead of center Aaron Baynes, who logged 15 minutes.

With 21 points on 8-for-20 shooting, Morris nearly out-scored Milwaukee’s entire bench (23), and joined Al Horford, Rozier and Jaylen Brown as 20-point scorers for the Celtics. Morris also grabbed 7 boards and connected on 2 of his 4 3-pointers.

“We all played well,” Morris said during an on-court post-game interview. “They played a good game, but we got Game 1.”

Horford gave Morris more credit when asked if Boston needs that type of production out of the stretch-forward consistently.

“No question,” Horford replied. “He brings toughness to our group. He brings that grit and we fed off of that and the crowd fed off of it and it was great.”

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Ahead of his playoff debut as a Celtic, Morris told the Boston Globe he thought outsiders might overlook the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed due to the absence of Irving and Hayward.

“I’m looking forward to proving everybody wrong,” Morris said before Boston took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. “Everybody is counting us out and that’s the main thing. This (is) about respect, and I feel we’re not getting any respect. We’re going to have to take it.”

While many NBA observers actually liked Boston’s chances versus the Bucks in spite of the team’s injuries, Morris’ personal postseason mentality can’t waver, or the Celtics’ playoff run won’t go far.

“I’m going to go out there and continue to be me, continue to be a bulldog, help my team do whatever it takes to win,” Morris said. “If we play the right way, I think we’ve got a great shot at beating (Milwaukee).”

And if Morris keeps finding ways to get to the rim and making big plays in the clutch, Boston just might be able to reach the East finals for the second year in a row.

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Reply 2 comments from Marius7782 Cshjhawk

How former Kansas standouts will factor into the 2018 NBA Playoffs

Minnesota Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins, right, talks things over with Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid, of Cameroon, following the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 120-108. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Minnesota Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins, right, talks things over with Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid, of Cameroon, following the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 120-108. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

For six of the 15 former Kansas basketball players employed by NBA franchises, the conclusion of the regular season’s 82-game grind also meant the end of their hopes of competing for a title, at least for this year.

But nine other Jayhawks, embarking on the 2018 playoffs this weekend, discovered better fortune.

While some one-time KU stars are just along for the ride on teams that call upon them sparingly, a few who used to shine in Allen Fieldhouse will need to produce in the postseason — most notably two of the top three picks in the 2014 NBA Draft, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.

Here’s a look at the Jayhawks still alive for the league’s 2018 championship and what roles they will play in the weeks ahead.

Marcus Morris — Boston

Boston Celtics' Marcus Morris (13) blocks a shot by Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Saturday, March 31, 2018. The Celtics won 110-99. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Boston Celtics' Marcus Morris (13) blocks a shot by Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Saturday, March 31, 2018. The Celtics won 110-99. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

For some, springtime means giving up a form of personal vice for Lent. This April, and maybe beyond, Marcus Morris plans to give up two for the playoffs. Or so he claims.

The pledge which the 6-foot-9 Boston forward schemed second seems more manageable than the first. On the final day of the regular season, Morris proclaimed on Twitter he would shut down his account until after the postseason. The vow came complete with a “locked in” hashtag and a reference to the pending “money time” ahead.

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As for the other oath, ejections from two separate games in the season’s final weeks prompted Morris to focus on better behavior moving forward.

"Going in the playoffs, it’s nothing to worry about,” Morris said of his technical issues in the foul department. “I promise I won't get any techs — unless we're just getting blatantly cheated. I want my team to win, so I won't put my team in jeopardy or anything like that. But I'll still be passionate about the game."

Morris, who averaged 13.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists for the Celtics, while shooting 42.9% from the floor and 36.8% on 3-pointers, picked up 10 technical fouls while playing 54 games in his seventh NBA season.

The at-times volatile forward, though, proved crucial to Boston’s late-season success, as the team finished second in the Eastern Conference, despite losing All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to injury. Morris averaged 18.8 points and shot 46.7% from 3-point range in March, as the Celtics went 9-3 and closed the month on a 6-game winning streak.

“It’s great,” Boston All-Star forward Al Horford said of Morris’ fiery nature, “and the Playoffs bring that out of you even more. We have a lot of guys on this team with an edge and Marcus is just more expressive about his. But we’re happy about that.”

The Celtics play Milwaukee in the first round.


Joel Embiid — Philadelphia

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid, right, of Cameroon, blocks out Minnesota Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns, left, from the rebound during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 120-108. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid, right, of Cameroon, blocks out Minnesota Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns, left, from the rebound during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 120-108. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

A freak on-court mishap, when rookie guard Markelle Fultz accidentally slammed into his much larger (and more important) teammate, Joel Embiid, left Philadelphia’s starting center with a fractured orbital bone near his left eye and a concussion.

Embiid missed the final eight games of the regular season as a result and isn’t expected to play in the Sixers’ first playoff game since 2012, coach Brett Brown revealed Friday morning on The Dan Patrick Show.

It’s unclear exactly how soon Embiid will re-join the lineup for Philadelphia’s first-round matchup with Miami, but when he does he will wear a mask for protection. The entertaining center unveiled his new black mask earlier this week during pre-game warm-ups, dubbing himself “The Phantom of The Process”

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Philadelphia attained the East’s No. 3 seed by winning its final 16 games of the regular season, but 13 of those came against non-playoff teams. The Sixers need their temporarily disguised face of the franchise back to advance in the playoffs.

In his first campaign without a season-ending injury, Embiid played 63 games and averaged 22.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 blocks. He’ll almost certainly garner all-defensive team and all-NBA honors. The sooner he returns the better for Philadelphia.


Andrew Wiggins and Cole Aldrich — Minnesota

Los Angeles Clippers forward Wesley Johnson, left, and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins go after a loose ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, in Los Angeles. The Timberwolves won 126-118. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Los Angeles Clippers forward Wesley Johnson, left, and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins go after a loose ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, in Los Angeles. The Timberwolves won 126-118. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Perhaps still riding the high of helping Minnesota put an end to a 13-season playoff drought, Andrew Wiggins didn’t sound overly concerned about his team’s chances as a No. 8 seed matched up against the West’s best, Houston, in the first round.

“They’re a great team, best record in the league. But we can beat anybody, and I believe that,” Wiggins told the Star Tribune.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2014, Wiggins’ production dropped off in his fourth season, with the arrival of all-star Jimmy Butler. Wiggins became the clear No. 3 option, behind Butler and big man Karl-Anthony Towns. Wiggins averaged 17.7 points and shot 43.8% from the floor and 33.1% on 3-pointers — down from 23.6 points, 45.2% FGs and 35.6% 3-pointers the year before.

“I mean, I got through it,” Wiggins said, when asked to describe his season, “and it was all about the bigger picture and now we’re in the playoffs.”

The T’wolves have to get Wiggins, Towns and Butler firing on all cylinders to have a shot against Houston, an offensive juggernaut thanks to the versatility of star guards James Harden and Chris Paul.

Minnesota Timberwolves center Cole Aldrich (45) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, April 5, 2018, in Denver. The Nuggets won 100-96. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Minnesota Timberwolves center Cole Aldrich (45) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, April 5, 2018, in Denver. The Nuggets won 100-96. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

One player who likely won’t factor into the series’ outcome, is former KU center Cole Aldrich. The Minnesota native appeared in only 21 games during the regular season, logging double-digit minutes just once.


Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. — Washington

Boston Celtics center Aron Baynes, center, and Washington Wizards forwards Markieff Morris (5) and Kelly Oubre Jr., left, wait for a rebound during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Wednesday, March 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Boston Celtics center Aron Baynes, center, and Washington Wizards forwards Markieff Morris (5) and Kelly Oubre Jr., left, wait for a rebound during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Wednesday, March 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Missing its would-be all-star point guard for half the season kept Washington from reaching its expected residence in the top half of the Eastern Conference, but Markieff Morris, Kelly Oubre Jr. and their teammates did just enough in John Wall’s absence to keep the Wizards in the playoff hunt.

Fortunately for all of them, the worst teams in the East didn’t put up much of a fight, either. Wall returned on the final day of March, but the Wizards lost five of their last seven in that span. Prior to that they lost six of their last nine without Wall.

All of it added up to a team with talent and promise settling for the No. 8 seed in the East and a first-round meeting with No. 1 Toronto.

Does a Wizards upset seem even remotely feasible? Not the way they’ve played lately. Better-than-average contributions from role players Morris (11.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 36.7% 3-point shooting) and Oubre (11.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 34.1% 3-point shooting) certainly would help their chances against the best and deepest team the Raptors have ever had.


Cheick Diallo — New Orleans

New Orleans Pelicans forward Cheick Diallo (13) tries to block a shot by Dallas Mavericks guard J.J. Barea in the second half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Tuesday, March 20, 2018. The Pelicans won 115-105. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

New Orleans Pelicans forward Cheick Diallo (13) tries to block a shot by Dallas Mavericks guard J.J. Barea in the second half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Tuesday, March 20, 2018. The Pelicans won 115-105. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

After his NCAA Tournament debut at KU two years ago, Cheick Diallo marveled at how “easy” it was for him versus Austin Peay. Here’s guessing the 6-9 forward, now with New Orleans, won’t make a similar assessment of the NBA Playoffs as the sixth-seeded Pelicans battle the West’s No. 3 seed, Portland.

Diallo has done relatively well for himself since becoming a second-round draft pick in 2016. He’s not a key member of New Orleans’ rotation by any means, but the reserve typically played between 10 to 15 minutes in competitive games versus playoff-level competition during March and April.

The second-year backup enters his playoff opener having averaged 4.9 points and 4.1 rebounds in 11.2 minutes for a New Orleans team that doesn’t require much help inside due to the presence of superstar Anthony Davis.


Tarik Black — Houston

Houston Rockets forward Tarik Black (28) looks to pass under pressure from Portland Trail Blazers guard Pat Connaughton (5) and Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu (8) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, April 5, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

Houston Rockets forward Tarik Black (28) looks to pass under pressure from Portland Trail Blazers guard Pat Connaughton (5) and Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu (8) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, April 5, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

The good news for Tarik Black is he plays for Houston, which finished with the best record in the NBA (65-17). The bad news is the backup big man doesn’t get much run.

The Rockets’ dominance meant Black started as key players rested in the regular-season finale. The 6-9 post player turned the rare opportunity into a double-double, producing 12 points and 11 rebounds in a loss to Sacramento.

But don’t expect to see nearly as much — if any — of Black as Houston makes its playoff push, beginning with Minnesota in the first round. He did not play a minute in nine of the Rockets’ final 21 games. Black averaged 3.5 points and 3.2 rebounds in 10.5 minutes this season, appearing in 51 games.


Nick Collison — Oklahoma City

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, below, and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nick Collison wait for a rebound during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 106-81. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, below, and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nick Collison wait for a rebound during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 106-81. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The resident old man of KU basketball alumni, 37-year old Nick Collison might not check in for Oklahoma City until a game is all but decided. Not that you would ever hear the 14th-year forward complain.

A favorite of OKC fans and superstar guard Russell Westbrook alike, Collison (5.0 minutes a game this season) remains with the organization for leadership and stability in the locker room. He’ll primarily watch from the bench and interject knowledge when needed as the Thunder take on Utah in the first round.

Whether it comes against the Jazz or later in the playoffs, if it gets to a point where OKC is on the brink of elimination at home, don’t be surprised to see Collison play out the final minutes on the floor. It could be a farewell appearance, as he plans to contemplate retirement once the Thunder’s season ends.

Reply 1 comment from David Robinett

Andrew Wiggins helps end Minnesota’s 13-year playoff drought — in OT of regular-season finale

Minnesota Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins, left, drives against Denver Nuggets' Wilson Chandler during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 11, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Minnesota Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins, left, drives against Denver Nuggets' Wilson Chandler during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 11, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

When Minnesota traded for Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2014, the franchise hadn’t reached the NBA Playoffs in a decade.

That postseason-less streak continued for three more years before Wiggins played a part in putting an end to if Wednesday night — on the last day of the regular season, and in overtime to boot.

In what amounted to a Western Conference play-in game for the final available spot, the Timberwolves edged Denver, 112-106, in Minneapolis.

It was still a one-possession game in the final 20 seconds of OT until Wiggins, the fourth-year small forward out of Kansas, drained a pair of clutch free throws with 14.6 seconds showing on the clock, pushing Minnesota’s lead to 110-106.

The 74.1-percent career free-throw shooter even managed to deliver after the Nuggets’ Will Barton paid him a visit at the charity stripe — no doubt reminding him about his 3-for-6 night at the line up to that point — just before the freebies.

Wiggins just smiled, laughed and proceeded to knock down both free throws.

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“My man Wiggs hit the two biggest free throws of his career,” veteran all-star guard Jimmy Butler said in an on-court interview immediately after the Timberwolves sealed their playoff berth. “This was a team effort.”

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The two crucial foul shots came just more than a minute after Wiggins passed to Jeff Teague for a go-ahead jumper.

The 6-foot-8 wing known for his next-level athleticism, as well as often leaving observers wanting more, finished with 18 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 3-for-5 3-point shooting in the victory that pushed Minnesota into the postseason for the first time since 2004.

The win gave Minnesota a 47-35 record for the season and the No. 8 seed in the West. The T’wolves will take on the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs, the Houston Rockets (65-16).

Reply 3 comments from Brian_leslie Crimson_bluescottco Shannon Gustafson

Frank Mason III returns from injury ready for expanded role in Sacramento

Sacramento Kings guard Frank Mason III (10) drives to the basket around Oklahoma City Thunder guard Raymond Felton (2) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. The Thunder won 110-107. (AP Photo/Steve Yeater

Sacramento Kings guard Frank Mason III (10) drives to the basket around Oklahoma City Thunder guard Raymond Felton (2) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. The Thunder won 110-107. (AP Photo/Steve Yeater

A heel injury sidelined Frank Mason III for 21 games, but the rookie point guard out of Kansas finally returned to the Sacramento lineup Thursday night.

Playing, for now, on a minutes restriction, Mason provided glimpses of what the Kings can expect out of him the remainder of the season. And, unlike when he last played in late December, Mason now can feel like a real part of his team’s plans.

With no realistic shot of making the playoffs, coach Dave Joerger and the organization made a shift in January, deciding to give more minutes to Sacramento’s youngest players in the final months of the season. While Mason was injured, the Kings traded away veteran point guard George Hill, too, leaving the roster with just two true point guards: Mason and lottery pick De’Aaron Fox.

Eighth-year guard Garrett Temple started in place of an ailing Fox, who missed Thursday’s game, against Oklahoma City. But the Kings clearly were trying to avoid putting too much on Mason too soon.

The second-round pick from KU had a modest return, giving the Kings 6 points (1-for-3 shooting, 4 of 4 free throws) and 2 assists with no turnovers in close to 16 minutes.

Mason watched the first 8:59 of the first quarter from the bench, before checking in to be greeted with cheers from the home crowd, but also a 22-point deficit.

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It didn’t take long for Mason to look comfortable, surveying the floor on the move and finding Buddy Hield wide open for a 3-pointer within a minute of joining the action.

The rookie point guard flashed his speed in the opening minute of the second quarter, sprinting down an inattentive Alex Abrines to smack away the Thunder guard’s dribble on a fast break for a steal that prevented a layup.

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Soon after, Mason added another assist by, predictably, being way too fast off the dribble for OKC veteran Raymond Felton to handle him. Mason drove to the paint, forced the defense to help and knew all along he had Hield standing on the opposite wing, waiting to knock down another open 3-pointer.

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Pushing in transition on the next possession, Mason again attacked Felton, getting past him, but had to alter his layup into a difficult reverse when Patrick Patterson caught up to help. The lay-in wouldn’t fall but Mason’s aggressive approach benefited the Kings as Skal Labissiere was able to tip it in.

Mason checked out with 8:22 left in the first half and his team down 16 points. The margin had been erased and Sacramento led by 5 by the time the Kings’ reserve ball handler next checked in, with 10:27 remaining in the fourth.

Trusted for seven minutes worth of running the team in a tight game, even though he was coming off an injury, Mason helped Sacramento maintain its lead. Though his first few defensive sequences in the fourth went awry, with him fouling Felton, setting up an and-1, and later getting leveled by a Steven Adams screen (a teammate should’ve altered him to the New Zealand wall he was about to run into), allowing Felton to score again to tie the game at 92, Mason responded by blowing past Felton for a layup.

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Later, Mason matched up one-on-one with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook on the perimeter and played so sound defensively that even the most aggressive offensive player in the NBA couldn’t find an angle to get to the paint and had to pass the ball away, resulting in a turnover.

The 5-foot-11 point guard capped his return by attacking the paint off the bounce, and drawing a foul on Adams en route to two made free throws, ahead of checking out with his team up three with 3:20 to go, in what would become a 110-107 loss for the Kings.

In the 24 games to come on Sacramento’s schedule, Mason is expected to play an even larger role, according to Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee.

While Fox, the No. 5 overall pick out of Kentucky, is considered more of a franchise player and will get more minutes than Mason once he returns to health (pink eye), Sacramento appears committed to playing both rookies in order to give them the experience they need.

Averaging 7.5 points, 2.9 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 18.4 minutes through 30 appearances this season, look for all of those numbers to go up in the weeks ahead, as Mason tries to cement himself as one of the rebuilding franchise’s building blocks.

Reply 4 comments from Surrealku Clara Westphal Nathan Scholl Koolkeithfreeze

After slow start to rookie season, Josh Jackson beginning to take off

Phoenix Suns forward Josh Jackson drives as Dallas Mavericks forward Maximilian Kleber (42)) defends, while Suns forward TJ Warren (12) watches during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Phoenix Suns forward Josh Jackson drives as Dallas Mavericks forward Maximilian Kleber (42)) defends, while Suns forward TJ Warren (12) watches during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Over the first few months of what will undoubtedly be a long career for Josh Jackson, little was heard from the NBA rookie in Phoenix.

Playing for one of the worst teams in the league in a non-major market will do that to you, especially when your production doesn’t immediately take off.

In November, the No. 4 overall pick out of Kansas averaged 8.8 points on 40.1% shooting, only made 18.4% of his 3-pointers, and contributed 3.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists. It was more of the same in December: 8.7 points, 35.7% shooting, 24.1% on 3-pointers, and averages of 3.1 boards and 1.1 assists.

Jackson’s rookie season hit rock bottom the first week of January, when Suns coach Jay Triano benched him — as in didn’t play the 6-foot-8 forward a single second — in a game against one of the NBA’s other poor teams, Atlanta.

“It was kind of hard to take in,” Jackson told The Arizona Republic in January. “I kind of really didn’t understand what he was saying.”

According to Scott Bordow, The Arizona Republic, the explanation given to the 21-year-old at the time included presenting Jackson with some harsh statistics. Before he was benched, the Suns had a 97.4 offensive rating with him on the court and played nearly 10 points per 100 possessions better without him, at 106.7. What’s more, Phoenix’s defense with Jackson (111.3 rating) was worse than when he wasn’t on the floor (106.6).

Jackson didn’t take the message or the benching lightly.

“Now we kind of have a schedule where, every week, I’ll come in and we’ll watch film or just talk about things that happened in the previous games and practices just for me to get better,” Jackson told The Arizona Republic of how he responded to Triano.

As detailed by Bordow at AZCentral.com, Jackson has at times looked like a much different player since watching that game against the Hawks from the bench. In his past 19 games, Jackson is averaging 14.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists, and making 44.2% of his shot attempts, as well as 30.1% of his 3-pointers.

No, Jackson hasn’t become flawless. There was his 0-for-13 shooting night versus Houston in late January and a 4-for-18 outing at Golden State in the week leading up to the all-star break. But he also has scored 20 or more points in four of Phoenix’s six games in February and resembled a young franchise cornerstone instead of a slumping rookie. Thus far this month, he’s shooting 45% from the field — just 26.9% on 3-pointers, though — and averaging 17.4 points, with 6.1 boards and 1.4 assists.

In a loss to Denver Feb. 10, Jackson became the first NBA rookie to put up 20-plus points and four-plus rebounds, assists and blocks in the same game since Anthony Davis.

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He entered the all-star break on a high note, too, putting up 22 points on 10-for-15 shooting against one of the league’s most respected defensive teams, the Utah Jazz.

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As he gets more comfortable facing NBA defenders Jackson is becoming a better finisher. And the Suns need him to be. Of his 247 made field goals as a pro, 133 of them have come from within 5 feet and in, per stats.nba.com.

He has shot 54.5% from that range on the season, but his percentage around the basket is up to 61.3% since Triano took his playing time away.

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Jackson displayed during his one season at Kansas the ability to defend, finish a stop or force a turnover, push and finish at the other end in a matter of seconds. At times, such versatility has translated to the NBA, as well.

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A student of the game, Jackson is learning and adjusting in his rookie season. Teamed with young Suns star Devin Booker, expect to hear much more from the 2017 lottery pick in years to come.

Reply 9 comments from Marius7782 Pius Waldman Jim Stauffer Brad Avery Allan Olson Surrealku Boardshorts Tim Orel Tommy Tripp

Joel Embiid goes for 19 points, 8 rebounds in NBA All-Star Game debut

Team LeBron's Kyrie Irving, left, of the Boston Celtics, shoots as Team Stephen's Joel Embiid, of the Philadelphia 76ers, defends during the first half of an NBA All-Star basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Team LeBron's Kyrie Irving, left, of the Boston Celtics, shoots as Team Stephen's Joel Embiid, of the Philadelphia 76ers, defends during the first half of an NBA All-Star basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

When Joel Embiid arrived in Los Angeles for the NBA’s 2018 All-Star Weekend, the biggest achievement of his career to date brought to mind the not-so-long-ago state of his basketball existence.

Foot surgeries and the resulting rehab robbed Embiid of two full seasons after Philadelphia made him the No. 3 overall pick out of Kansas in the 2014 draft. Now he’s clearly one of the league’s top big men.

“It’s really special. You guys called me a bust when I missed those two years,” a smiling Embiid told reporters ahead of starting for Team Stephen in Sunday night’s showcase. “But I worked really hard and went through a lot, missing those two years, losing my brother (Arthur, who died in 2014). I wanted to quit basketball, and it was hard being away from the court. But I’m glad I just kept pushing.”

The first player to represent KU in the all-star game since Paul Pierce in 2012 and the first Jayhawk to start in one since Wilt Chamberlain in 1973, Embiid looked right at home. The Sixers center scored 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting, grabbed 8 rebounds and blocked 2 shots in 20 minutes.

It wasn’t two-time NBA MVP and team captain Stephen Curry or scoring machine James Harden, but the versatile 76ers center who produced the game’s first basket, throwing down a two-handed jam and drawing a foul for a quick three points. Embiid kept it going shortly thereafter with a smooth jumper outside the right elbow, giving him the first 5 points in a matchup of the world’s elite basketball players.

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Sixers fans, coaches and management might have cringed a little when Embiid collided with LeBron James while going up for a defensive rebound in the first quarter, but the 76ers big with an injury history survived just fine.

Following a lengthy break on the bench, Embiid returned in the second quarter to deliver one of the first half’s oohs-and-ahhhs-inspiring sequences. The center, in a span of seconds, splashed a 3-pointer from a few feet behind the arc, then got back on defense to deny Russell Westbrook of a layup, with a blocked shot at the rim.

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“That’s the age of the new NBA,” Curry said during a halftime interview on TNT, when asked about Embiid both providing some spacing on the floor and protecting the rim. “Everybody can stretch the limits a little bit, and he’s one of them. I like to see it. I like his confidence, I like his swagger and I’m glad he’s on my team.”

Averaging 23.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 31.4 minutes during his second season with Philadelphia, Embiid remained active in the second half, coming through with an easy dunk and his second 3-pointer of the night in the opening minutes of the third quarter.

After observing for another long stretch, Embiid returned to a one-possession game with 4:24 remaining in the fourth quarter. Always assertive offensively, the extended rest didn’t impact his approach. Embiid scored a reverse lay-in over Kevin Durant with 3:10 to play, giving Team Stephen a three-point advantage.

Near the 2:00 mark, following a defensive switch, Embiid navigated a one-on-one with Kyrie Irving successfully on the perimeter, contesting a missed 3-pointer. On offense, he proceeded to attack LeBron James from the high post and bank in a little right-handed jump-hook for a 144-141 lead.

Although James quickly got his revenge in the form of a game-tying 3-pointer over the Philly center, in the final minute Embiid didn’t let Paul George score a go-ahead layup on his watch, blocking the Oklahoma City forward inside.

With Team LeBron using no traditional big men in crunch time, Draymond Green replaced Embiid with 40 seconds left. Team Curry, put Embiid back on the floor for the final offensive possession, but couldn’t get off a would-be game-tying 3-pointer. Team LeBron won 148-145 and James, with 28 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists, took home the MVP trophy.

It was a busy weekend for Embiid, the 7-foot-2 center from Cameroon, who made a brief appearance in the Rising Stars exhibition on Friday, scoring 5 points in 8 minutes.

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The 23-year-old said beforehand he didn’t want to play too much in that game made up of first- and second-year players, preferring instead to let the “young guys” shine.

Some wondered how much a sore ankle that sidelined Embiid in the Sixers’ final game before the all-star break would limit him in L.A. But Embiid, who said the words “minutes restriction” don’t exist for him in Philadelphia anymore, competed in Saturday’s Skills Challenge, too.

After beating Boston’s Al Horford in a race up and down the court that incorporated dribbling, passing and shooting, Embiid lost out on a chance at the event’s final round when Chicago rookie Lauri Markkanen knocked him out.

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The first two nights didn’t carry the prestige of Sunday’s main event. So it was no surprise the driven Embiid used that stage, playing with and against the NBA’s best, to really flash his array of abilities.

Not that all-star appearances are the measure Embiid plans on using to gauge his career success.

“Now that I’m here I’ve still got a long way to go,” Embiid said during his first of what could be many all-star weekends as the face of the Sixers. “I’m not anywhere close to where I want to get. But now that I’m here it’s sweeter being an all-star starter, too, for the first time. So I’m excited.”

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Reply 3 comments from Dirk Medema Mike Riches

Paul Pierce immortalized as Boston Celtics retire his No. 34

Former Boston Celtics Paul Pierce holds the NBA championship trophy that he won with the team during a ceremony to retire his number following a basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Boston, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Former Boston Celtics Paul Pierce holds the NBA championship trophy that he won with the team during a ceremony to retire his number following a basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Boston, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

From this day forward no member of the Boston Celtics will ever again wear No. 34.

That number will forever be associated with the name Paul Pierce and hang in the rafters above the Celtics’ signature parquet floor, with the likes of Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale.

The best NBA player from Kansas since Wilt Chamberlain, Pierce officially became a legend Sunday in Boston, when the franchise with 17 championships retired his jersey.

“Words can’t even describe it right now,” Pierce told reporters on the eve of the ceremony.

“When I got to this day, I was like, ‘It came so fast.’ I remember like yesterday the day Wyc (Grousbeck, co-owner of the Celtics) called me and was like, ‘We want to retire your jersey.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? It happened already?’” recalled Pierce, currently in his first year of retirement. “Just to see and be with all the people who helped me on this journey, to get to this point to where I finally put a close on my career and leave a legacy here in Boston, it’s just good to bring all those people in one room. Because it wasn’t just me by myself to get to this point.”

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Pierce figured the festivities, which followed Boston’s game against Cleveland, would toy with his emotions, and he was right. The 40-year-old who grew up in Inglewod, Calif., played three years at KU under then-coach Roy Williams and became the face of the Celtics for the bulk of his NBA career fought back tears at one point, while addressing cheering fans inside TD Garden.

“If I never make the Hall of Fame,” Pierce said during his speech, “to go up as a Celtic with my number here, that’s probably all I can ever ask for. That’ll be enough. That would be enough for me.”

Former Boston Celtics Paul Pierce, left, raises a banner during a ceremony to retire his number following an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Boston, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Former Boston Celtics Paul Pierce, left, raises a banner during a ceremony to retire his number following an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Boston, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

A 10-time all-star and MVP of the 2008 NBA Finals, Pierce’s statistics rank him among the very best to ever wear the iconic green and white of the Celtics.

The 6-foot-7 forward nicknamed “The Truth” by an NBA legend, Shaquille O’Neal, Pierce is Boston’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made (1,823), free throws made (6,434) and steals (1,583).

Only John Havlicek (26,395 points) scored more for the Celtics than Paul Pierce did (24,021) during his 15 seasons with the renowned franchise.

Former Boston Celtics Paul Pierce comes onto the court during a ceremony to retire his number following an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Boston, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Former Boston Celtics Paul Pierce comes onto the court during a ceremony to retire his number following an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Boston, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Pierce also ranks in the top 10 in Celtics lore in games played (third, 1,102), minutes played (third, 40,360), field goals made (third, 7,882), offensive rebounds (eighth, 1,008), defensive rebounds (third, 5,643), total rebounds (seventh, 6,651), assists (fifth, 4,305), blocks (fourth, 668), points per game (third, 21.8) and steals per game (eighth, 1.4).

It’s those kinds of numbers that earned Pierce the respect of his peers and former Celtics giants alike.

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“One of the greatest things that can happen to an athlete is to retire as a Celtic,” 11-time champion Russell said in a video message to Pierce. “I’m very proud of you, and I’m proud that you were a Celtic.”

Kevin Garnett, who teamed with Pierce and Ray Allen to lead Boston to the franchise’s most recent title, in 2008, remembered Pierce for his swagger and scoring ability.

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“Part of trash-talking is backing it up. And I would say his level of trash-talking is about the doing, and him telling you he’s about to do it,” Garnett said in a video tribute. “You hear these tales about Larry Bird — ‘Hey, I’m comin’ down here fixin’ to shoot the 3 right in your face.’ Well, our generation that was Paul Pierce.”

Here are a few of the countless videos and photos dedicated to Pierce’s career and achievement that popped up on his memorable day:

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Reply 2 comments from Marius7782 Surrealku

Stephen Curry drafts Joel Embiid to his NBA All-Star team

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid, of Cameroon, right, gives Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry, left, a hug following the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Philadelphia. The Warriors won 124-116. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid, of Cameroon, right, gives Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry, left, a hug following the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Philadelphia. The Warriors won 124-116. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

When Joel Embiid makes his NBA All-Star debut in a few weeks, he will do so as a temporary teammate of two-time league MVP and two-time champion Stephen Curry.

Golden State’s 3-point-shooting savant, as the leading vote-getter in the Western Conference, earned a captainship opposite the East’s most popular superstar, LeBron James. The two perennial all-stars and NBA Finals opponents spent a portion of their Thursday afternoon drafting their teammates — a new twist on the league’s annual February showcase.

Where exactly Embiid, the 7-foot-2 Philadelphia center and former Kansas standout, fell in the pecking order isn’t widely known at this point. The NBA opted not to televise the all-star draft this year (more on that later). All we know for sure is James had the first pick and both he and Curry had to select from a pool of starters — as voted on by fans, media and players —before picking up any of the reserves — chosen by the league’s coaches.

Embiid will take the floor with not only Curry, Feb. 18, in Los Angeles, but also Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and DeMar DeRozan. The “Team Stephen” starters will open up the exhibition at Staples Center versus “Team LeBron,” featuring Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Kyrie Irving.

Considering Harden and Antetokounmpo are two of the premier players in the NBA, it’s safe to guess Curry selected Embiid fourth or fifth overall.

While the lineups will fluctuate greatly during the course of the game it should be entertaining to watch Embiid try to take on New Orleans bigs Davis and Cousins for stretches. But look for the Sixers’ star to really put in work when he gazes across the court and sees Kristaps Porzingis headed his way. Embiid beat out the New York star for the final available front court starting spot in the East, prompting Porzingis to tell reporters, “players know,” he should have been a starter over Embiid, referencing his peers casting more votes for the Knicks’ unicorn than Philly’s trash-talking center.

Curry, speaking with TNT’s Ernie Johnson on NBA Tip-Off, referenced Embiid’s personality and social media prowess when reviewing the teammates he picked.

“Joel’s obviously gonna be a future all-star for plenty more years, and this is his first go-round,” Curry said. “Maybe one day that weekend he’ll take over my Twitter account and say some jokes for me or something.”

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Fans and followers of the NBA would’ve enjoyed the chance to watch Curry and James take turns deciding the all-star rosters, perhaps groaning when the other selected someone before his opponent had a chance to swoop in or talking trash about which team looked more devastating.

And you know Embiid — averaging 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.9 blocks to go with 49.1% shooting — would have plenty to say after the fact about where he did or didn’t go during the draft.

We might get to see all of that and more play out in 2019. James said on TNT after the teams were unveiled: “This thing should’ve been televised.”

Curry agreed, and said while the process was cool behind closed doors, “Hopefully we’ll both be captains again and we can broadcast it to the world in real time.”

The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported there was enough “union pushback” from the NBA’s players to inspire the league to not televise or stream the all-star draft this year.

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The National Basketball Players Association released the following statement to SB Nation on the matter:

“It was the absence of a consensus by prospective players likely to be affected that led to support for a reveal (instead of a televised draft). Whether a decision to broadcast the draft will be made after this year’s game, that will be determined going forward.”

TEAM STEPHEN | Starters: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and DeMar DeRozan. Reserves: Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Al Horford.

TEAM LEBRON | Starters: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Kyrie Irving. Reserves: Bradley Beal, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, Kristaps Porzingis and John Wall.

2 All-Star Weekend appearances for Embiid

In addition to starting in All-Star Weekend’s main event, Embiid will also play in the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge — a showcase for first- and second-year players — two nights earlier.

With rosters split up by nationality, Embiid will join Team World against Team United States. Just as in the actual All-Star Game, Embiid will be the only former Kansas player in action.

Embiid was slated to play in the Rising Stars game a year ago, but missed it due to injury. The 23-year-old played in only 31 games during 2016-17, his debut season.

Thus far in his second year, Embiid has played in 35 of the 76ers’ 44 games. Philly is 21-14 when he plays, and 2-7 when Embiid sits.

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